Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: A Tale of Two Brooders

Henry Cavill as Superman, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, and Ben Affleck as Batman in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice"
"Nobody cares about Clark Kent taking on the Batman," Perry White scoffs midway through Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the long, lumbering, sporadically pleasing genre behemoth from Warner Brothers. Perry (Laurence Fishburne) is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Planet, but while he may be a decent newsman, he'd make a lousy studio executive. The honchos at Warner Bros. are quite confident that everyone—or, at least, a sizeable percentage of the ticket-buying populace—is intrigued by a faceoff between a bespectacled reporter and a caped vigilante, so much so that they're banking on this $250 million seedling to flower into the Justice League, a confederation designed to rival Marvel's unstoppable Avengers franchise. As with most modern superhero movies, this one feels less created than engineered, and you can see its readymade headline from space: Batman fights Superman, while Wonder Woman looks on in a skimpy outfit. Perry White just sold out three printings.

Now, I do not begrudge a business for trying to make money. To accuse Warner Bros. of profiting off the quenchless thirst of Batman and Superman's fanboys is to chastise a lion for mauling a gazelle. But while the studio will view this film primarily as a savior to its balance sheet, the question remains just what kind of movie it is. And the answer, ironically enough, appears right there on the campaign's promotional materials: It's a movie directed by Zack Snyder.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane: Don't Go Out There. What, Don't You Trust Me?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman in "10 Cloverfield Lane"
Michelle is a runner. When trouble approaches, she takes off. This tendency toward flight makes her the perfect sufferer in 10 Cloverfield Lane, a tense, riveting thriller that filters hoary science-fiction and horror tropes through the lens of claustrophobic terror. It's a lean and efficient film that takes place entirely in a single location, one that Michelle spends most of her time desperately trying to escape. Oh, and it might also be about the apocalypse; then again, maybe not. To Michelle, it hardly matters. When you're trapped in an underground bunker, who cares about the rest of the world?

10 Cloverfield Lane opens with a brisk, eerie prologue, a near-silent montage that finds Michelle—you guessed it—on the run. She's fleeing New Orleans after fighting with her fiancĂ©—surely those reports on her car radio about rolling blackouts can't be important—and though she receives a conciliatory phone call from him (his voice belongs to Bradley Cooper), she isn't inclined to turn around. Instead, she keeps driving on a deserted two-lane road until WHAM! she's the victim of a sudden car crash. And I do mean sudden. The collision, which director Dan Trachtenberg brilliantly intercuts with the film's silent opening titles, is a heart-stopping moment, the kind that frays your nerves and rattles your bones. It is not the last time this sharp, merciless movie will provide a shock to your system.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Zootopia: Sly Fox and Smart Bunny Solve a Caper, Teach a Lesson

Jason Bateman as a sly fox and Ginnifer Goodwin as an earnest bunny in "Zootopia"
The clichĂ© about modern animated movies is that they satisfy both kids and adults. In reality, they tend to satisfy kids or adults, with specific elements aimed exclusively at each demographic; kids are entertained by talking animals and scatological humor, while parents are placated by wry sarcasm and the sporadic literary or cinematic reference. Disney's Zootopia isn't entirely immune to this kind of bifurcation—there are broad gags about genitalia (groan), and there are subtle jabs like a group of critters who work at Lemming Brothers Bank (ha!)—but for the most part, it avoids the trap of pandering to its audience. This doesn't mean it has nothing to say; on the contrary, Zootopia targets its younger viewers with a message that is familiar but also well-meaning and even resonant. It's a kids' movie made by adults.

The surprising power of that message is initially obscured by the film's brisk setup and lively visuals. As the punny title suggests—this is presumably the first animated movie that will inspire parents to teach their children about the writings of Thomas More—Zootopia takes place in a universe populated by anthropomorphic animals who live in apparent harmony. Our heroine is Judy Hops (Ginnifer Goodwin), a perky bunny rabbit with big ears and a bigger heart who aspires to become the metropolis's first cotton-tailed police officer. Judy may be small in stature, but her will is indomitable, and what she lacks in size she compensates for with quickness and guile. That's an awfully familiar trope, and Judy's quest for self-fulfillment results in the predictable recitation of trite platitudes found so often in children's literature. Be yourself! Never give up! Follow your dreams!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Witch: A Puritanical Walk in the Wicked Woods

Anya Taylor-Joy in "The Witch"
Early in The Witch, Robert Eggers's sly and skillful horror film, a man goes hunting with his 12-year-old son. They're searching for game in the midst of a dark, ominous wood, but they also find time for some standard-issue father-son bonding. Only it isn't quite standard-issue; when the man, William (Ralph Ineson), cautions the boy, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), against the dangers of sleeping too late, he solemnly intones, "The devil holds fast your eyelids." That delectable piece of diction encapsulates The Witch's dual preoccupations. It's a movie about the danger of religious fervor, but it's also about communication—what people say (and don't say), and, more importantly, how they say it. As the adage goes, the devil is in the dialogue.

The Witch, which takes place in the 17th century, purports to base its tale of literal and allegorical horror on actual period sources. To that end, the characters speak largely in early-modern English, which means there are a great many thous, haths, and dosts. (Even the film's marketing materials get in on the act, treating the title's W as consecutive V's.) This requires a small act of translation on the part of the audience—not unlike when listening to Shakespeare, you have to actively puzzle out the characters' speech, rather than simply absorbing it. This assumes that you can hear it; the film's sound design picks up the rustling of branches and the bleating of animals, often compelling you to strain your ears to comprehend every flavorful morsel of colonial argot.